Last time I wrote a bit about the memoir I am currently reading, by Tara Westover. This led me to reconsider other memoir writers who have been especially influential (and otherwise) in my current project. I think it’s incredibly important to remain aware of the link between what you are reading and what you are writing. There are thousands of memoirs around, a lot of them extremely boring. But memoirs of writers … especially of writers who mainly write memoirs … it’s a whole area of literary scrutiny which seems weirdly appropriate in the present era of compulsory self-curation. So here are some thoughts about three recent literary memoirists who have had a big influence on my recent work.
Joan Didion’s book about her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), and her later book about the death of her daughter, Blue Nights (2011), were important for me in understanding how differently writers can inhabit and explain their inner worlds. The story itself is heart-wrenchingly painful. From a young, happy creative woman with a loving family life, Didion suffers the ravages of time and random chance, far beyond what she ever could have imagined, with painful dignity. The passage of time itself seems almost a character in her books, enhanced by the publication in various places of photographs (though not in the books themselves). I have been wondering about whether to put lots of photographs in mine. I love looking at other people’s snapshots of themselves and their families and friends as I am reading their memoirs. On the other hand, sometimes the imagination is the best illustrator.
KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD: MY STRUGGLE
Knausgaard showed me that I didn’t need to follow a temporal sequence but could produce component volumes of different lengths and time periods in episodically random order. His first was A Death in the Family (2009 in the English publication sequence) and he was writing it round about the same time as I was writing my own maternal mortality story. His revelations about his father, which caused a violent storm in his native Norway, were pretty gruesome. I had nothing of that kind to contribute. My mother had done some pretty awful things like most of us do, but she was nothing like the kind of horror he described his father to be. If anyone was a horror, it was me. Sixty-three at the time, I still thought I had to excel in my career. I still thought I was much more important than anybody else. This was not the frame of mind to be in when trying to help a 93 year old woman through the last year of her life.
Like most English-language readers I was gripped by Knausgard’s second volume, A Man in Love (2013) about his relation with his second wife and their family. The texture of everyday existence and his internal monologues as he did his best to live in ideologically correct Sweden and please his feminist wife, the only man taking his little child to pre-school singalongs where he spent the time lusting after the kindie teacher – what happens when you want to be a writer but aren’t allowed to – a typical woman’s story, now being written by a man who had acceded to feminist expectations. A lot of women writers seem to have approached Knausgaard only to go away again. There is something challenging about entering so deeply into this man’s mind which feels strangely disconcerting. We think we know how men think but it’s weird to have it confirmed in such detail. Good feminists aren’t supposed to enter this terrain at all, or so it seems, but I found it liberating. Knausgaard exemplifies a masochistic hysterical masculinism which seems to have become a default position for many hetero male writers today.
NOT AN INSPIRATION:
Elena Ferrante (well, that is not “who she really is”; all l the hoo-haa has been quite absurd, unless you subscribe to the Author as Sacred Object school of literary thought) is very popular with women readers. Everything she has written seems to me completely fake. I really and truly cannot read it. I have started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and I don’t get it. Just look at those covers: Mummies and little girls in silly clothes, dollies and fairies, nakedness in the mirror, and a headless woman in a bright red dress. Really!
One of these days I will try again. If Knausgaard is the masculine consciousness of the twenty-first century, Ferrante might be the feminine counterpart and not in a good way. Women seem to read books in order to identify themselves with the narrator, and in line with a lot of feminist theoretical work from the 1970s and 1980s, she works from the classic masochistic feminine position. It is so depressing that a great many women still seem to find this compelling.
Everyone who writes is supposed to read all the time. I certainly do that, in part because of increasingly chronic insomnia. But reading too much (and watching too much Netflix) gets in the way of actually writing. So I am cutting right back. But at the recent Sydney Writer’s Festival (the one sponsored by Varuna at Katoomba, and only for one short day unfortunately) I heard Tara Westover talk about her just-published memoir educated and I had to buy the book and read it at once. Not finished yet, and will write more about it soon, but am loving it so far, and finding it inspires me with confidence about the value of life-writig. I love the fiction universe of course, the worlds created there, but the actual real world is pretty amazing!
As mentioned last time, memoirs are at the front of my priority list at the moment. I realise in retrospect that I have been reading memoirs now for several years. Westover’s book is about a young women who is raised in a fundamentalist Mormon household on a mountain in Idaho. The thing is, she never went to school – shock horror – and yet became a highly successful writer, historian and academic at the top universities in Britain. I haven’t found out exactly how she accomplished this, but I kind-of relate to it. Of course I did go to school, and my family was hardly survivalist or fundamentalist, but the ethos of my early life was pretty similar: anti-Government, pro-self reliance, no emphasis on education, the constant awareness that you weren’t like other people who took city life and money and happiness for granted. And of course, being in Australia in the 1950s meant something different: the shadow of World War Two, family disruptions, deaths and secrets and silences.
I have read – what? – maybe thirty or forty memoirs about growing up in communes or remote communities or outside the mainstream world. In many ways I was doing the same until the mid-1970s and then, strangely, I slid back into it, but that older life never leaves you, and I think, from what Tara was saying in her talk, it has never left her either.
And today I am reflecting on the strangeness of it: reading other people’s life stories allows you in some way to rescue or re-inhabit your own.
Sometimes books appear and you know right away you want to read them. Nikki Gemmell is already a very well-known writer, with a lively career as a magazine journalist as well as ten plus full-length books, the best known being her first, The BrideStripped Bare. I have to confess it is the only one I have read. I’m not quite sure why. Her books seem to fall between a few stools: genre fiction, literary fiction, self-help, essay.
But her new book, After, is definitely in my territory. Memoir, true story, traumatic experience, mothers and daughters. I’ve already written my own version, about the death of my mother and my ex-husband within three weeks of each other back in 2008. I wrote it not long after but haven’t been able to bring myself to go back and edit it, let alone publish it. But it is on my list and should be finished by mid-year. I don’t think it will be much like Nikki’s book.
Nikki’s mother chose to die; mine didn’t. My mother never intended to die, ever, and the stupid accident which killed her could easily have been avoided. She was 93; she might conceivably even be alive today if she hadn’t lost her dentures. But that is my story, this is about Nikki’s, sort of, but not really, because I haven’t read it.
Tomorrow we are going to hear her talk about her book at a “meet the author” event in Katoomba, courtesy of the wonderful Gleebooks in Blackheath and Varuna Writer’s Centre. I have been looking forward to it. It’s so much better when you have read the book being discussed. So I did what I always do, and looked for it in a Kindle version from Amazon. Yes, it was there, so that was good, until I looked at the price. $14.99. In hardcover it’s $22.50. There doesn’t seem to be a paperback. What? Yes, it’s Harper Collins’ strategy to get you to buy the hardcover, or at least to stop you buying the e-book. Who would pay $15, even if it’s a great book and you really want to read it? And who is getting the lion’s share of the inflated e-book price? You can bet it’s not Nikki. No, for those who do pay for the e-book, Harper Collins will get the major part of it, even though their production cost for putting it up on Amazon as an e-book is probably near zero, since all the editing was done for the print version, the marketing costs cover both, and tweaking an already existing cover design for Kindle is so easy a kindergarten child could do it these days.
Sorry, Nikki, but I guess I won’t be reading your book for quite a while. I can put my name down for it at the local library, or maybe I will find some friend who has bought the hardcover. But I will not buy any more hardcover (or print) books unless they absolutely cannot be obtained any other way and I really really need them. And although I’m sure your book will be great, I just won’t support greedy publishers who expect readers to cough up absurdly high prices just to keep their existing legacy business model going. Just a reminder: when you “buy” an e-book you don’t really “buy” it in the traditional sense. It isn’t yours. The company who release it can remove it at any time. You can’t lend it to anybody else. You can’t give it away as a present. You are just hiring it. A price above $10.00 is wholly unjustifiable.
Writing my previous post about pernicious publishing practices in the Amazon age, I found myself reflecting on that Australian literary and political figure Bob Ellis. Near the end of his life (he died at his Palm Beach home in April 2016) he gave a radio broadcast about the things that really mattered.
His early life in small-town Lismore had, on reflection, been one of them, and he regretted the way he had lost contact with the tight-knit community-based world where families all knew each other back for generations, where collective events were celebrated and sins were forgiven. Of course we know it isn’t like that any more – the horrors of small-town and rural life are the stuff of legend – family murders, suicides, drug addiction, child abuse and the rest of it – any virtues seemingly eclipsed in the heady rush of late modernity. It surprised me that he expressed such nostalgia for a way of life he despised in his glory days.
I was a little disappointed in Bob’s book, not because the individual essays and articles weren’t interesting but because I had expected an autobiography or memoir, a reflection on earlier commitments and decisions. What seems self-evident at one time may turn out to seem very peculiar three decades later. Bob’s radio broadcast suggested he was in a state of reconsideration, and this book sometimes let you glimpse that, but more would have been welcome. As in life, Bob couldn’t stop himself namedropping. The reader is left in no doubt about how chummy he was with the great and good as well as the infamous not-so good. Bob Ellis was an Australian icon, but his legacy may disappear quickly. He was a genuinely strange person.
I knew Bob back in his Sydney Uni days, when he hung around with those two great poets Les Murray and Geoffrey Lehmann. Bob was generally long-haired and shabby. Les was fat and looked like a farmer, which in fact he was. Geoff was immaculately be-suited and always elegant and polite. They were an ill-assorted trio. Les went on to become a right-wing identity and Poet Laureate, while Geoff remained a lawyer as well as a poet. Bob became ever more leftish, cultivated important connections and wrote many plays and screenplays as well as several books.
Young Bob Ellis (ABC)
I met him many times at pubs and parties, but he mostly ignored anybody who wasn’t important or political and was rarely cordial or even polite to those he deemed below him. I hadn’t seen him for over a decade, during which time I had spent two years as an anthropologist living among Aboriginal people in the desert. Then, to my amazement, there he was at Maralinga, at the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing, 1984. I had been asked to act as the Royal Commission’s anthropological advisor, reporting directly to the Commissioner. “Diamond Jim” McLelland was an august and controversial legal figure with his dapper suits and air of absolute superiority. Renowned as a supporter of Gough Whitlam and accused of extreme Leftism by various Australian rightists, he went on to front the Land and Environment Court.
In the remote flyblown deserts of Northwest South Australia Diamond Jim fitted in with grace and good temper, sitting under flimsy shades among the Aboriginal witnesses, squatting around campfires, and walking unconcernedly through the plutonium fields. I went wherever he went and listened to all the evidence. I pointed out where translations to and from English seemed inadequate or wrong. Bob Ellis was there to write a book. He and Diamond Jim seemed to be best mates, and had been permitted to attend the desert hearings, a rare privilege. I don’t think any other writers or journalists were allowed to be there. Shambling, shuffling and disordered, Bob behaved with dismissive contempt to almost everyone. He did try to converse with the Aboriginal witnesses but they had no idea who he was and thought he was just another lunatic white man. He paid no attention to other white people, including me, so I never got to discuss his perceptions of what was happening, although I would have liked to.
I have finished a long story – novelette length – about Maralinga for my new collection of stories, Radiant Sands, which will be out soon. In Bob’s collected works was a long piece about Maralinga, which I had not been aware of previously. This essay seems to be all that remains of his intended book.
Bob seemed to have attended closely to the Aboriginal evidence and was able to convey the extraordinary quality of the desert hearings, although the details were sparse. It was a good piece, and I enjoyed it.
My fictionalised novelette, Last Patrol, is very different. The people Bob Ellis saw and heard during the Royal Commission were members of the the same groups of people whose story I tell in Last Patrol. I wanted to restore the realities that lay behind the formality and structured context of a legal hearing. I imagined events and invented composite characters. But I believed then, and still believe, that it was a true story. I had no reason to question the account of many people that their relatives had been living in the far bush and that some had perished in the bomb blasts.
I attempted to persuade the Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission to follow up this line of questioning. It is not possible to ask the Royal Commissioner directly to pursue such an issue himself, it has to go through arcane and indirect processes involving the introduction of evidence which can be challenged by others with the right to appear at the hearing. There were plenty of these. Many Aboriginal witness statements agreed that there were people coming in from the far north-west at the time of the first tests, and that they had never been seen again. But there was no way of getting direct evidence since nobody had survived. To present this as evidence would require that the witnesses know exactly who they were, be able to name them, to state why and how they knew there were walking into the atomic test sits area at that time, and the basis on which they knew it. If they couldn’t do so, their words were just speculation and hearsay, or so I was told. The question opened up too great a can of worms, even for this enquiry
Aboriginal people had told each other stories which had passed along the chain of communication to the north and west and right around the desert. The criteria of “truth” in a legal case depends on a certain kind of evidence: this, but not that; here but not there. That’s not the way Aboriginal people think, nor is it the way their world is constructed. Even the “black cloud” evidence was not fully convincing to the judge and the legal team. The “missing relatives” story was even less so. The Australian legal process when applied to non-English speaking Aboriginal people is so totally misplaced and unable to penetrate into the “truth” of any situation. I was so completely disaffected and infuriated by the way the Royal Commission proceeded, and the minimal impact of its findings. It did result in clean-ups, and the local Aboriginal land-holders did get rights to their land eventually, but the deeper truth of what happened seemed to me to have been consistently glossed over and trivialised.
Memories and stories have their own rationale; memoirs and autobiographies move to a different rhythm and produce a different kind of truth. Writing about an historical event using fictionalised reconstruction is a kind of knowledge-creation but it still makes me feel uneasy. Purely factual history makes the reader comfortable although there are so many different ways to construct it. Of the several factual books on Maralinga the recent prize-winner Atomic Thunder, by Elizabeth Tynan, is undoubtedly the best to date.
I don’t know what kind of book Bob Ellis would have written, or what he would have made of my story if he had lived to read it. I wrote Last Patrol well before Tynan’s book appeared. To what extent should one book influence another, where one is “fact” and the other is “fiction”? What value can we place on fictionalised narratives which rely on imagined events and composite characters? It’s an issue which needs far greater consideration than I can give it here, or probably ever.
All the injustice that the Aboriginal people of the desert experienced seemed wrapped up in the chain of events that motivated my story: their peremptory removal from their traditional lands, the contempt displayed towards anyone who protested, the absolute dismissal of their rights to life and liberty. It was ghastly but not surprising back in the days when the atomic testing program was established, but to find much the same attitudes expressed, even if covertly, in 1984 was truly shocking, and I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Was it wrong to use fiction to write about it? Wouldn’t a thorough analytic recounting using the detailed transcripts and thousands of pages of documents have been better?
Like Bob, I once thought I would write a book. I tentatively called it Maralinga: Memoirs of a RoyalCommission. I still have cartons and cartons of material in storage. But it became clear as the decades passed that I was never going to do it. Is a fictional story any kind of substitute? All I can do is hope that readers are led to consider the possibility that Aboriginal people in Central Australia are the only human beings on the planet ever to have been nuked, other than the victims of of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am not sure I did the right thing in writing that story, but I felt it needed to be told and that seemed the only way to do it. I will leave it up to the reader to decide, when it finally appears.
One of my Pages is called “Memoirs”. There I talk about the continuing Memoirs project and its inspiration (or otherwise) by the writings of recent authors. I’m repeating some of that here in this post.
While I still haven’t managed to read the whole of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus My Struggle (Volume Six still isn’t published in English anyway and some of them I just haven’t been able to get through) the way he wrote and published has been an inspiration.
I really appreciate the way he didn’t feel obliged to follow the temporal sequence of his existence, but came out with things in what seemed to be almost episodically random order. The first published in English was A Death in the Family and he was writing it round about the same time as I was writing my own maternal mortality story. His revelations about his father, which caused a violent storm in his native Norway, were pretty gruesome. I had nothing so dramatic to contribute. My mother had done some pretty awful things but she was nothing like the kind of horror Karol Ove described his father to be. If anyone was a horror, it was me. Sixty-three at the time, I was still trying to excel in my career. I thought I was much more important than anybody else. This was not the frame of mind to be in when trying to help a 93 year old woman through the last year of her life.
Like most English readers I was gripped by Knausgaard’s second volume, A Man in Love, about his relation with his second wife and their family. The texture of everyday existence and his internal monologues as he did his best to live in ideologically correct Sweden and please his feminist wife, the only man taking his little child to pre-school singalongs where he spent the time lusting after the kindie teacher – what happens when you want to be a writer but aren’t allowed to – a woman’s story, now by a man.
His other books had less to say to me, and I haven’t finished them all. Still, they are there on my Kindle and I dip in and out of them every once in a while. For all the sense of alienation and irritation Knausgaard is able to stir in me, I like the way he is trying to grapple with himself and come to terms with what a shit he was most of the time.
The second memoirist I must mention is the insanely popular Elena Ferrante (not. All the hoo-haa about who she “really” is has been quite absurd, unless you subscribe to the Author as Sacred Object school of literary identity). On the other hand there might be something to it because everything she has written seems to me completely fake. I really and truly cannot read it. I have tried, started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and honestly I have to say I just don’t get it.
One of these days I will try again. If Knausgaard is the masculine consciousness of the twenty-first century, Ferrante is a feminine counterpart. Women seem to read books in order to identify themselves with the narrator, and in line with a lot of feminist theoretical work from the 1970s and 1980s, now largely ignored, it would seem that Ferrante works from the classic masochistic feminine position which a great many women still seem to find compelling and truthful for them.
Knausgaard on the other hand seems to me to exemplify the masochistic hysterical masculinism which our times have produced. This is not the place to conduct a forensic analysis of these writings, looming large over the “serious” reading scene though they are. But the experience of tangling with them has sharpened up powerfully my sense of what memoirs can, or maybe cannot, do.